Plot: What’s it about?
I’m a big believer in, well, several things. But when it comes to science-fiction movies, I have to think that they fall into two categories: entertain or enlighten. I’ll explain. You’ve got your alien films like Independence Day or Mars Attacks! or War of the Worlds (either version), which feature the aliens who come to Earth and pretty much kick our butts. And then you’ve got your more intellectual films like The Martian, Contact, Interstellar and Contact which seem to go a different route. Call this latter group the “thinking man’s” science-fiction movie. Both have their pros and cons, but I do tend to favor films that make me think. So when Arrival, er…arrived, I’d heard nothing but good things. I’d also read where Amy Adams was snubbed of an Academy Award nomination, but I won’t go there. I’ve enjoyed director Denis Villeneuve’s previous two films: Sicario and Prisoners, immensely and the buzz around this film was second to none. Is there intelligent life out there? Is this movie overhyped or does it live up to its lofty expectations? Let’s find out.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor who is still mourning the loss of her daughter. A dozen almond-shaped pods appear at seemingly random spots around the Earth and she’s “recruited” by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker). The government wants to try and figure out why these pods are here and, of course, is ready to destroy them if necessary. Also in tow is theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) who will try and see things from a scientific perspective. Louise manages to make contact and, with help from the other spots around the world, manages to form a rudimentary language between the humans and aliens. It’s this bond between Louise and the beings that ultimately shows what they (and their language) might be capable of, but revealing that would ruin the film.
There’s a lot to like about Arrival. It’s a well-made film with plenty to offer and director Denis Villeneuve’s movie seems to move at a stately pace. I like that. Truthfully, this film could have been four hours long and I don’t think I’d have looked at the clock. It’s not perfect, mind you, I don’t know why the military always has to be portrayed as trigger-happy cowboys, but I suppose there’s a reason for it. Based on the 50 page short “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the film excels in both its performances as well as challenging the viewer. This is what makes Christopher Nolan’s films so interesting to me, I feel I actually have to think, but I’m entertained as well. Arrival might not be for everyone, but I found it both intriguing and entertaining and that’s a rare quality. Along the same line as another recent sci-fi favorite of mine, The Martian, I find that this will be one that I’ll watch at least once a year.
Video: How’s it look?
Paramount brings Arrival to Ultra HD/4K and does so in glorious form. For those that are familiar with Villeneuve’s other films, this one has a unique look to it, for sure. The HEVC 2.40:1 4K image isn’t the most colorful film out there, but compared to its Blu-ray counterpart, it does take advantage of the high dynamic range (HDR). Many of the scenes are dimly lit and have a rather muted color palette. The interior of the spaceship and even the “aliens” themselves are marred by a pale, white mist. That said, there’s nothing really wrong with the way this looks. Detail is crystal clear (the bags under Adams’ character’s eyes are very noticeable) as is the texture of the spaceship. Certainly the film is quite the spectacle and it looks pretty darn amazing in UHD.
Audio: How’s it sound?
I’m going to intentionally contradict myself by saying that I’m a bit disappointed that this didn’t contain a next generation audio format like DTS X or Dolby Atmos, but that disappointment aside it sounds amazing. The included DTS HD Master Audio track packs a wallop in all of its 7.1 channels and each one is used with great effect. The LFE get their use with the constant hum of the spaceship and even the high-pitched sound that the alien language makes (if you haven’t seen it, it’s hard to describe) sounds impressive. Vocals are strong and clear, lacking any distortion. Surrounds are on full alert here as well, they add a lot of ambiance to some of the more action-oriented scenes while Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score really sets the mood and tone. It’s a very unique soundtrack and don’t let the lack of an Atmos/DTS X track fool you – it’ll turn heads.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival – This 30 minute supplement is actually less about “understanding” the film, but rather how it came to be. A lengthy interview with the director as well as Ted Chiang (who is much smarter than anyone I’ve ever encountered…ever) discusses his short story that has made the leap to the big screen. It’s a fascinating look at the film and its origins.
- Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design – Sylvain Bellemare, the Supervising Sound Director, is interviewed and gives us some of his inspiration for the sound used. Also featured is Dave Whitehead who was in charge of the Heptapod (aliens) sounds. It’s a very interesting segment and opened my eyes to some things I’d not ever considered regarding sound design.
- Eternal Recurrence: The Score – Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson explains to us his motivation for the score. He details how some scores can be “cold and technological” while this one feels more “soft and feminine.” AGain, things I’d have never thought of, but hearing them really makes sense. All things considered, the score for the film really is one of the driving forces behind it and it’s a testament to a good composer who can bring it all together.
- Nonlinear Thinking: The Editorial Process – As many features as I’ve seen on editing, I’ll never get over how amazing it is to see rough footage and then the final cut. Editing is magic! In this segment, Joe Walker, who served as the film’s editor, is interviewed and explains how “time is the editor’s superpower” and it’s true. We get a look at a few scenes from the film as well as some comments from the crew concerning editing. Again – amazing.
- Principles of Time, Memory & Language – I’d advise anyone who has not seen the film first to skip this as this explores the basis of the film itself and does contain some spoilers. That said, this is a pretty intriguing look at the concept of what’s explored in the film, how it works and we get a crash course in theoretical physics to boot. Neat!
The Bottom Line
There’s very little to complain about from a movie that both looks and sounds great on 4K and the film itself is one to behold. It’s got great performances from all involved and the two hours pass by like that. This one is a no-brainer.